3 Lessons We Learned About The Produce Section That Will Change Your Next Grocery Trip

We all know there’s a grand design in place at the supermarket, with every detail planned and planted specifically to solicit the ultimate reaction: “I’ve gotta buy this.” It’s no different in the microcosm of the produce section, says a 30-year-veteran of A&P supermarkets, and the amount of thought that goes into convincing shoppers we want — nay, need! — to buy something will change the way you look at fruits and veggies.

In case you don’t happen to read the Modern Farmer, they’ve got a farm confessional series bringing in workers in the agricultural field to shed some light on how things are done for the rest of us.

In this column Modern Farmer spoke with Ron Pelger, a former A&P supermarket worker who went from bag boy to regional produce director for the Northeast. He now works as a consultant, advising stores how to best arrange their produce. So he knows his stuff.

“A lot goes into this business if it’s done right, a lot of psychology,” he explains. We aren’t just throwing up stuff and hoping you’ll buy it.”

So what are they doing? Here are three lessons we learned:

1. There’s a logical reason the oranges are next to the broccoli: The produce money spot at the entrance of store — called the number one display spot — will have the star item, the top sale product from the front page of the flyer. If it’s potatoes, say, produce planners set up other items on either side of the sale item in the “wings.”

So when sale shoppers go to grab the potatoes, they think, “Hmm, maybe I need vine-ripened tomatoes, too,” even if they’re not on sale.

“Those customers make up the loss we’re taking on the potatoes,” Pelger says.

And times, they are a-changin’: While planners would only pair items that went together naturally in the past, the game is different now.

“Now you put navel oranges next to broccoli, get customers thinking of a wider range of things to buy,” he explained. “They didn’t plan to buy broccoli, but now it’s in their basket, so maybe they’ll get some butter to melt on it. And hey, what goes good with broccoli? Steak? Potatoes? That’s what you call a little ‘impulse impact’ shopping.

2. Don’t shop for produce based solely on appearances: Shopping for produce is like shopping for a used car — while many customers shop by appearance, looking for nicks, scratches, bruises and other faults as a reason not to buy, you could still go home with a lemon of an orange. Basically — just because that orange is a vibrant shade of orange, it might be tart upon eating.

The lesson to be learned? Just because there’s one bruise on a tomato doesn’t mean the rest of it won’t taste absolutely delightful.

3. There’s no such thing as in-season anymore: Anyone shopping for strawberries in winter might understand that the reason they’re so small in winter is because well, it’s just not the right time of year for the fruit. But we as consumers still want to eat strawberries whenever we want, and as such, stores have adjusted what “in-season” is. Basically, it doesn’t exist.

“You might get vegetables grown in Canada part of the year, then the same items from Mexico during the winter,” Pelger explains. “There can’t be any intervals when the product isn’t available.”

But don’t expect that unseasonal fruit to taste as good in the cold months — refrigeration is a downside to the 52-week availability of all things.

“You’ve got to keep everything cool so it lasts longer, but that affects the taste. Everyone knows this: an orange won’t taste good if it’s cold. A tomato won’t taste good if it’s cold.”

Farm Confessional: Secrets of a Supermarket Produce Buyer [Modern Farmer]